Teaching for Beauty

We’ve all been exposed to the dream of a beautiful classroom. High windows, old wooden desks, a chalkboard, creaking hardwood floors, contemplative little dust motes floating through the filtered sunshine lazily spread upon it all. And though only a few of us will ever get to teach in such an idyll, the notion embedded in that dream is that learning can be accompanied with beauty. It is the reason we love our quads and greens, the reason architecture is a vital part of the ethos of the university; it may even be part of the reason why urban colleges and community colleges are not esteemed the same as colleges with old stone buildings and ivy-covered walls.

Education and learning are tied in our imaginations to the aesthetic.

So why have we gone from this:

To this:


And what impact does that have on how we teach and how we learn, or on how we think about teaching and learning? Do we look forward to jumping into an LMS? Are there spaces we can create in digital learning environments that provide the same aesthetic engagement with learning that sitting in the sun… on the grass… with a book supports?

Of course, the old stone buildings and the study session on the green are problematic as examples because of the privilege inherent in them. Not many students will get to attend an ivy-covered college, with the freedom to spend an afternoon in the sun with Shakespeare in their hand. But we bring these examples because they reveal something that’s missing in the visual representation of digital learning. Why are the spaces of digital learning as barren of detail and color and interest as they are? Why, given what’s possible with digital design, don’t we have online space that are lovely?

And more: what can we, as designers and teachers, do about this? Here’s are a few things to consider:

Speaking Voice

Even if you create videos for your online courses, a great deal of your interaction with students will be textual. What you say in type is how you’ll be perceived by students. So, think about voice. Something happens when we go to write our very first page inside the LMS. We suddenly become the very old, white, male, tight-lipped scholar who can’t use contractions or ellipses or emoticons or ironic parentheticals or risky language (or run-on sentences). Even those of us who are not grammar guardians become hyper-vigilant about sounding like the stony, unapproachable expert. Most teachers sound nothing like themselves when they write online; and yet voice sets the tone in an online course. Perfect grammar shakes no one’s hand, gives no hugs.

As much as you can, bring yourself online. Write the way you present in class. Write like someone who holds office hours, who can be compassionate, who cares whether a student learns or doesn’t learn. The digital is no reason to sacrifice your personality, your humanness.

You can also consider letting your students bring their own voices to the fore. Think about the instructions you give for discussions, for example. What kind of voice are you encouraging students write in, and why? What is the result?

Telling Stories

Just as the very best lectures are those that engage us in the personality of the speaker, so the best learning experiences are often narrative.

All courses are compositions, and as such they should tell a story. In this, we are referring both literally and also more generally to the idea of story. Teaching can utilize anecdote, storytelling, performance in specific moments, but consider too whether your and your design course can follow a narrative arc. An online course shouldn’t be a series of handouts followed by a quiz. The course should begin one place and end someplace decidedly elsewhere… someplace learner and teacher mutually discover. The best courses are as engaging as the best stories, and they don’t neglect aesthetic considerations.

When on Camera…

Video has become an almost ubiquitous component of learning and teaching online. We’ve used it in this course in very informal ways. But often, online courses are created with the use of actual cameras, lighting, green screen, and more. Whether you are using your computer’s camera to shoot a video, or you have access to media services, consider thinking about the aesthetic impact your videos have on learning.

Some videos to consider: